The opening keynote conversation with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred covered topics from international expansion, to sports gambling, startup leagues, instant replay, and new fan engagement initiatives like the virtual homerun derby. Read some of XLIVE’s takeaways below.
When asked the question, “What’s the MLB’s international strategy for next five years?” Manfred stressed that it is different from country to country. He grouped the international strategy into 3 categories:
- Mexico – Mexico is the ‘broadest’ play, and Manfred would like a closer relationship with the Mexican Professional League. He wants the MLB to support the Mexican Baseball League (MBL), help them grow their domestic product, and create additional opportunities for talent in Mexico to come and play in the United States. He also sees a huge broadcast opportunity in Mexico for Major League Baseball content.
- India & China – Manfred sees India and China as two massive untapped economies for baseball, which will be an Olympic sport in 2020. He stressed the need for grassroots activity in these markets, and the need to create cultural familiarity. The MLB has worked to get baseball into 300 schools in India, which Manfred said may sounds like a lot but, but is just a ‘drop in the bucket’ and a start to a larger initiative. He shared the need to get more content to these markets as well to help accelerate cultural familiarity for the sport. Expansion to India and China is “Not a revenue play, it’s an investment play” Manfred stated.
- Developed economies – The MLB is looking to strike more deals with the large European markets to bring more content to EU members. He shared his excitement about the MLB heading to London in June for the first time, when the New York Yankees will play the Boston Red Sox, similar to the move the NFL made several years ago. Expect more content deals and international expansion in the coming years for the MLB.
A recurring theme at SOTI was using technology to create and/or enhance fan engagement across the sport industry. Manfred noted that ‘fan engagement’ often means two different things for organizations and for the fans themselves. Organizations think ‘fan engagement’ is getting their content in front of fans, while the fans think ‘fan engagement’ is being able to share feedback, and for that feedback to be heard.
In May of 2017 the MLB launched MLB Live, and streamed games live on the social media platform. Watch Manfred speak about the Facebook agreement here. Manfred said it was interesting to compare the mixed reactions, and which to no surprise were largely generational. The older generation questioned the need to read comments from people they didn’t know and didn’t particularly care about. The younger generation, which tends to be more suited for dialogue on Facebook and other social platforms, had a more positive response, and engaged with others during the games. Manfred said the MLB will continue to experiment with platforms and initiatives like streaming games on social platforms, constantly striving for new and engaging experiences to connect with fans.
Gambling in Baseball
In May, the Supreme Court legalized sports gambling in the United States. Manfred shared the MLB has no plans to be a bookmaker and will work with partners like MGM to lead the gambling experience at baseball games. He’s interested to see how different markets, teams, and stadiums approach this new opportunity. Will there be betting infrastructure at the stadiums? Will the majority of betting happen on mobile, where fans can place bets in their seats? The future will tell.
Women in Baseball
When an attendee asked Manfred about the development of women’s leagues, and employing women umpires for future seasons, Manfred pointed to the Play Ball initiative, which is the MLB’s program to bring the game to America’s youth. “Everywhere we’re making an investment in baseball, we’re making an investment in softball”, he shared.
Virtual Home Run Derby
The virtual homerun derby is a new initiative from Major League Baseball, which looks to bring the event to fans and increase fan engagement. Manfred has seen great response to this, so look for more technology and AR/VR to be in baseball stadiums across the United States.
MLB Winter Meetings: Tech Expo
2018 was the first year of the Technology Expo at the MLB Winter Meetings. 23 sports tech companies were selected by the MLB to demonstrate their products and services for 30 MLB organizations. Manfred was thrilled with the response from the professionals who attended and said the Tech Expo is something we can expect to be an annual occurrence at the Winter Meetings.
In conclusion, the MLB is embracing technology, international expansion, data and analytics, wearables, virtual reality, and performance-related sports technology. We can expect continued innovation from the MLB, and we can expect them to continue to test new engagement initiatives to connect with today’s fan and create unique and memorable experiences. Today’s fans have more viewing options than ever before. As professional sports continue to battle for viewership, it will be interesting to compare the different approaches to the breadth of technology product and services available. From this conversation, we know the MLB is stepping up to the plate and embracing the challenge.